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Preparing for Secondary School: Tips from a Head of Year 7

We spend hours worrying about secondary school choices and before you know it, the first day arrives bringing with it a massive change for parents and children alike. If your child is heading off to secondary school in September, you may be thinking about ways you can help prepare them (and yourself) for the big transition.

Getting ready for secondary school

We hear you -  it’s a big leap for the entire family. Below is the twixt guide to preparing for secondary school with tips and good practise from Chris McDonald, Head of Year 7 at Ashlyns School in Hertfordshire. According to Chris, there’s quite a lot we can do in the lead up to the big day to make the whole thing a bit easier on all of us.

We are assuming schools will resume in some form in the autumn. But the fact that our current year 6 children may not have much closure from their primary schools, as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, means preparation for secondary school is more important than ever.

So even as I begin the interview with Chris McDonald, I’m already thinking, ‘How much of this conversation will be different as a result of the current pandemic?’

Chris says, ‘Of course there could be a real difference in how we begin the 2020 academic year. We’ve had some government guidance as to what that looks like and how a school day may look. However, we recommend preparing your child as normal. And luckily, there are a few areas we can address which will be useful no matter when your child starts secondary school.’

Things to do before the first day

Go through the routine with your child as early as possible

‘It is about covering every step of your child’s day up to the point they walk into the school. Encourage them to practise the journey to school. They could do this with you or trial the walk, cycle or bus or train ride, with a friend (in a socially distant manner!). Get them to pack a backpack with a water bottle and snack. Ask them to think about what they might need. The key here is practise.’

Understand what makes your child feel safe ‘Discuss what items they will need to help them feel safe. Do they need a house key, a laminated card with phone numbers (in case their mobile phones run out of juice), a bus card, a locker key, lunch or a snack? Most schools operate prepayment on food but your child might need some money for food too.’

Get back to a normal sleep routine 'Usually we are dealing with kids that have just had a summer of relaxation and late nights. But many children have just been out of the classroom since March. Chris notes, ‘It’s important to get them into a routine of good sleep. Turn off screens and devices before bedtime and charge out of their bedrooms. This is especially important as these habits form now fora good sleep routine in the future.’

Dealing with worries

Chris states, ‘I can usually identify the main worries that children experience before starting secondary school – these fall into three key areas: 'The first is worrying about being bullied. This is obviously a huge concern for schools as well. Most schools aim to deal with any bullying quickly. So it’s always important to reassure your child that they can come to you (and the school) if they are concerned. We aim to keep lines of communication open and also discuss the differences between hurtful behaviour and bullying. 

'The second is worrying about getting lost or in trouble for a teacher for being late (from getting lost). It’s important to know that most children know the entire school within two weeks. And it’s okay to get lost – that's what the teachers and staff are there for! Lots of schools have transition periods with maps of the school. Find out what type of support your school will offer in the light of the current restrictions.

'Finally, most children are worried about making new friends. We like to encourage children to make new friends – secondary school is known for developing lasting friendships. There will be so many opportunities to meet new friends through clubs, sport and school trips too.

'Talk to your child about their worries but don’t dwell on them. Ask what you could do with that worst-case scenario. Look at your school’s website transition page, student and parent section and see if there are any other tips that can support these conversations too.’

Easing into secondary school life

Get ready the night before

‘We all would love for our children to get up and sort out their own uniform and bag packing! But these first few weeks are quite heavy with things to remember. It’s really important for their transition: Help them to get organised!

‘Ask what items they will need before each day. Don’t leave it until the morning – there's enough to do just getting breakfast in most children. Do they need a water bottle, a pencil case, PE kit or even food tech supplies? The school will provide you with a lot of these details before the first day. However, the school will also start to provide more information to your child. Encourage them to write things down if they might forget.

'Ask what classes they have the day before and get the timetable out. Do they know the route from each class? Go through their timetable and ask how they will get from class to class.  Help them get organised by having them taking a photo of their timetable, and keep it on their phone to help remind them where to go.

'Find out how your child would handle different scenarios. What if they lose their house key? What if they can’t remember who is picking them up? In most cases, the best thing to do is head back to school to the receptionist – they have a phone. Hopefully they will be able to get in touch with someone who can direct them home.

‘It’s about giving them the skills to learn to problem solve. So often we try to fix things for our children. At secondary school, they are learning how to do this on their own.’ I can hear the smile in Chris’s voice when he says, ‘To be honest, it’s often harder for the parents than the students.’

Managing an increase in homework

‘Primary schools do an amazing job on the academic side of preparing children for secondary school. It’s often the thing they struggle with the least. Secondary schools tailor the curriculum (especially the first term) to the specific needs of the new cohort. They are in close contact with the primary schools to find out what’s been missed.

'If your child is feeling overwhelmed by the homework, keep your form tutor and teachers informed. It helps them not just in supporting your child, but in their own planning too.'

Good digital habits

'If I had to give one bit of advice to parents, it would be to support your child with understanding digital hygiene. We know the kids will spend a lot of time online and many are probably getting their first mobile phones right now. Help them to understand hurtful comments and being digitally smart. Know that hurtful comments will almost always been seen by an adult and that WhatsApp can be quite exhausting. We strongly recommend reviewing the InternetMatters site this summer. '

Just remember...

‘Ultimately Year 7 is a time of transition and there’s definitely a learning curve for both parents and children. Give it all a chance to settle in and expect a few bumps along the way. Your school will aim to support you during this time so be sure to call on the faculty if needed.’

So often, the transition to secondary school is harder for the parents than the children.

Chris McDonald is Head of Year 7 at Ashlyns School in Hertfordshire. We thank Mr McDonald for speaking with twixt.

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